April 16, 2014 | Volume 101 / Number 16

Bison Would Trample Us

A Montana district court recently ruled that Montana laws dealing with the wild or domestic status of bison are “ambiguous.” Those laws certainly are complicated, and for good reason.

The Montana legislature has purposely given joint jurisdiction over bison to our state’s livestock and wildlife agencies because bison pose a unique management situation. They pose a dire threat to Montana’s livestock industry because much of the Yellowstone bison herd carries the dangerous disease brucellosis. But more than that, bison have the capacity to do a great deal of damage to private property.

That’s why we’ve made a deliberate choice not to treat bison the way we treat wildlife like deer or elk.

But that district court ruling – which stated that bison that had been taken out of the wild and placed in captivity still be classified as wild, not domestic – weakens the balance we’ve had for years in bison management.

Some very well-funded environmental groups from Washington, D.C., and New York City would prefer to eliminate the livestock protections completely from our bison management.

They’re pushing to relocate bison from Yellowstone National Park onto public land in Eastern Montana, and they’ve been adamant those bison shouldn’t be confined in any way, shape or form. That means that these bison won’t just be relocated to public land, but that adjacent private landowners will be forced to host those bison as well.

That’s the key implication of this recent district court ruling. If those bison are considered to be wildlife – the same as deer or elk – landowners have no recourse to recover the damages those bison would cause.

Disappointingly, Gov. Bullock’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has seemed more than willing to go along with this radical plan to force private landowners to bear the brunt of bison relocation.

Amazingly, there seems to be nothing to gain from their radical plan. Bison restoration is already happening in Montana. Thousands of bison have been restored on private and tribal ground in various parts of the state. That model of restoration works – the animals are on property where they’re wanted, and adjacent landowners have recourse should they stray to someplace they’re not supposed to be.

It’s romantic to think about a Montana landscape from hundreds of years ago, with no fences, no highways and no people. But it’s not practical. Thousands of Montanans make their living from the land, and agriculture remains our state’s most important industry. Those livelihoods and that agriculture economy are imperiled by this radical notion that we should have free-roaming bison herds rumbling across the prairie.

Montana FWP is moving full steam ahead with a plan to force bison on private property. They’re meeting in Lewistown this week, April 15 and 16, to discuss not if we should relocate bison, but how many. So far they’ve ignored the overwhelming public opposition, but they need to keep hearing it. I hope you’ll add your voice to the debate. [FWP canceled this discussion meeting, where various interests would have been represented, after Ripley wrote this column. See related story from FWP at left.]

State Sen. Rick Ripley, from Wolf Creek, is the vice chairman of the Senate Fish and Game Committee. He was a petitioner in the recent lawsuit challenging FWP’s exclusive jurisdiction over translocated Yellowstone Park bison.

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